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STAGE REVIEW

They're marauding and guffawing again

Swashbuckling since 1879 and rocking since 1980, `Pirates of Penzance' still has it.

July 02, 2007|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

The moral of the story is: Don't judge a pirate by his skull and crossbones.

How daffy. How instructive. How sweet. Such a message could be delivered by only one show. No, not "Pirates of the Caribbean." Think back a tad further, to "The Pirates of Penzance," the 1879 operetta by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Though perennially popular, the show had grown dusty and fey until a 1980 New York Shakespeare Festival production gave it a rock 'n' roll edge by casting pop stars Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt and actor-on-the-rise Kevin Kline. A just-opened staging in Long Beach by Musical Theatre West swaggers with a similar rock-concert attitude and once again casts Smith in a leading role, though this time not as the angel-faced juvenile but as the Steven Tyler-sexy Pirate King.

Right from the start, the audience knows it's in for a good time. Smith, in mock-heroic mode, swings ashore from a two-dimensional sailing ship and, sword at the ready, looks to cause mischief. Spotting baton-wielding musical director Daniel Thomas in the orchestra pit, the singer challenges him to fight and quickly gains possession of the baton, to conduct the company in its first song.

As directed by Steven Glaudini and choreographed by Jamie Torcellini, the show continues like an Errol Flynn swashbuckler crossed with a Harold Lloyd comedy: For when in action mode, the Pirate King, often as not, ends up with a bucket over his head or a foot stuck in a wooden crate. Smith is, as well, the source of much of the rock-concert hipness. Dressed in open-to-the-navel shirt, tush-hugging pants and flashy scarf, he turns the Pirate King's songs into proto-pop chart-climbers.

The plot is driven by Frederic, an apprentice pirate of age to become a full-fledged member of the Pirate King's band but who as a man of conscience feels duty-bound to turn around and eradicate his felonious -- but tenderhearted -- friends.

Kristofer McNeeley lends Frederic a noble, ringing tenor. The cherub-cheeked lad falls for blond-ringleted Mabel, who, as comically portrayed by Jennifer Malenke, seems taken with Frederic but is still more interested in showing off her fluttery soprano -- especially the notes so high that they cause Frederic, on his knees adoring her, to pinch his ears shut in pain.

Contributing laughs as well are Mary Gordon Murray as Frederic's onetime nursery maid, who gets a pirate makeover in Stevie Nicks bohemian wear, and Norman Large as Mabel's father, a major general fond of epaulets, sun umbrellas and tongue twisters sung at breakneck speed.

The plot roils with opera-like grand passions and imminent peril, counterbalanced by a playful thumbing of the nose at such conventions. Lyricist Gilbert and composer Sullivan really outdid themselves with this show, stuffing it with such all-time greats as "Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me," "Poor Wandering One" and "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." Momentarily forgetting itself, the music surges into operatic lushness when Frederic and Mabel seem destined to be kept apart. But soon those lovable pirates return, and the laughs begin anew.

daryl.miller@latimes.com

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`The Pirates of Penzance'

Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, also 7 p.m. this Sunday

Ends: July 15

Price: $25 to $52

Contact: (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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